Eddie Jones’ England team finished an overall superb fourteen months on a particularly disappointing low point against a dominant Ireland side on Saturday evening, but the side still have much to take out of their Six Nations campaign. We review the good, the bad and the ugly of this year’s tournament.
As well as winning four games out of five, including a last gasp victory in Cardiff, England were finding ways to grind out ‘Ws’ despite not playing particularly well. This is often said to be the mark of a good side; after all, no one really remembers how you win a tournament, just that you did so.
Moreover, England have a fantastic core of players. It could be argued that up to 21 of the men in white’s eventual 31 World Cup squad is already being pencilled in. That’s an amazing position to be in with still almost three years until the next edition of the event in Japan.
After his rather silly challenge on Leo Senatore against Argentina back in November, a decision which saw the player red carded and finish his autumn campaign early, Elliot Daly has proven his worth to the team as a winger and is now seemingly undroppable from the side.
Likewise, Jamie George, Kyle Sinckler and Ben Te’o have all continued to develop as international players, with George possibly being able to cement his position as a starter player this summer when England head to Argentina for a two test tour missing their Lions contingent.
Maro Itoje has made a pretty decent fist of becoming an international blindside, even if he’s not necessarily packing down there at times, which has allowed Jones to select both Launchbury and Lawes – two players who have really excelled for their country this Six Nations campaign. With Chris Robshaw and George Kruis set to come back into the mix there are going to be some very significant names missing out on selection in the near future.
England’s attacking game was allowed to flourish against Scotland, and it showed what the men in white’s back division can do when their forwards utterly dominate the opposition. Ford and Farrell combined so well and this allowed the natural talents of Jonathan Joseph and Anthony Watson to shine through.
Eddie Jones goes into the rest of 2017 with a chance to test his depth. The Australian has already explained he is likely to rest some big name stars after a challenging and demanding Lions tour, which could see England field a number of second stringers for the matches in the autumn. Come 2018 England could have quality options in every position.
Irish fans have revelled in their triumph over Eddie Jones’ team and it’s understandable: their rivals were close to making history and breaking records, but the euphoria that has surrounded the win compares to that of the first Irish defeat over the All Blacks.
This should be taken as a wonderful compliment, but question marks will now still remain over how good England are at dealing with pressure. Jones himself referred to the Dublin match as a World Cup final-type game, and to end up with only 39% possession by the end of the match is a recipe for disaster.
The best type of defence is to hold on to the ball, which is exactly what Ireland did. England did not deal well with their tactics, were completely wiped out at the breakdown and just could not get any ball in hand. When Youngs finally passed the ball out to his backs, it was pedestrian at best.
Whilst Jones’ side defeated France in Paris to win a first Grand Slam in thirteen years last season, Ireland are a far superior team to the French and winning in Dublin is a notoriously tough ask for any English side.
Nor did England play particularly well for most of the tournament. A disappointing 80 against the French, a last gap win over Wales and a bizarre defeat of Italy show a side that can find ways to win but ultimately not necessarily out-think the opposition. In those situations the All Blacks would be relentless, but they’d also adapt their game plans on the hoof. The Italy match spoke volumes about the lack of leadership on the field from Hartley and his generals: why did it take so long for the team to work out how to counter the Azzurri’s non-engagement tactics? It was only a likely ‘hair dryer’ dressing down from Jones at half time that did the trick.
The men in white have the talent and they have the right coaching team in place, but any world class side will be growingly independent and able to be flexible as a game develops. Jones wants his players to think for themselves, but there is still some way to go before this happens.
The strangest thing about this England team is how they seem to leak soft scores. In total they conceded seven tries across five games and rarely were the opposition to make to work for those. Ireland, Wales and France all had better defensive records. Paul Gustard has overseen some truly remarkable defensive efforts from his team, but this is a worrying development.
Moreover, the way that England were taken to the cleaners at the breakdown against Ireland was pretty embarrassing for a side that wants to be compared to the likes of double World Champions New Zealand.
The selection of Chris Robshaw as an openside for the entirety of former coach Stuart Lancaster’s reign was a source of much debate and criticism, with more traditional opensides in Steffon Armitage and Matt Kvesic largely going ignored for one reason or another.
James Haskell has previously combined well with Chris Robshaw to form an effective backrow, but England could have done with a ‘jackal’ against a wily Irish pack on Saturday night. The next great white hope is Sam Underhill, now available for selection having signed for Bath, and he may be a wildcard selection for England’s summer tour of Argentina, but he is still young and unproven. He will find it hard going even gaining a starting spot for his new club.
Jones too must decide if – or maybe when – he ditches Dylan Hartley from his team. A good captain yes, his record speaks for himself, but there is a growing queue of English hookers desperate for their chance to start. Throw in Hartley’s head injury record and below par performances for his country in 2017 and one wonders whether he will make it as far as Japan in two years’ time.
Similarly, Mike Brown has been a wonderful servant to his country – but is he going to be there in 2019? As a fullback never blessed with blistering pace, going into the tournament as a 34 year old would be a big ask. Jones has talked of looking at Mike Haley, Elliot Daly and Anthony Watson as fullback options, but has yet to give any of them gametime at the back.
Eddie Jones will continue to repeat the mantra that his team are fourteen months into a four year project, but there is still so much for his players to do and to think about before they can be heralded as the world’s best team. For now they are second best, but the loss on Saturday shows even that honour is not secure. An exciting summer and autumn now awaits all fans of the men in white.
Paul Wassell, Pundit Arena
[gravityform id=”1″ title=”true” description=”true”]
Read More About: All Blacks, Anthony Watson, Argentina, Bath, captain, chris robshaw, Dublin, dylan hartley, eddie jones, eddie jones news, elliot daly, england rugby, england rugby news, France, george ford, george kruis, Ireland, Italy, Jamie George, Jonathan Joseph, Maro Itoje, mike brown, new zealand, owen farrell, Sam Underhill, Scotland, Six Nations, Wales